Shepparton airline pilot warns future of industry remains unclear

By Charmayne Allison

Shepparton's Stewart Greig never feels more at home than when he's soaring high in the sky at 500 km/h.

But when COVID-19 struck, Stewart — along with countless other pilots — found himself suddenly grounded.

Watching helplessly as the pandemic crippled his entire industry, the International Air Transport Association now tipping global losses could reach billions of dollars.

A pilot for Regional Express Airlines (Rex), Stewart, 34, is one of the lucky ones.

Rex has been able to keep a small number of aircraft flying, meaning Stewart has been given a couple shifts each fortnight, flying passengers to regional centres across the country.

But many in the industry have not been as fortunate.

Shepparton's Stewart Greig is a pilot for Regional Express Airlines.

Qantas has been forced to shed one-fifth of its employees, keeping another 15 000 stood down.

Meanwhile, Virgin Australia has stood down 80 per cent of its staff and made its entire crew of Tigerair pilots redundant.

Rex has also been hit hard, stripped to a skeleton staff and cutting its flights from 1500 a week to just 80.

The airline is holding on, recently announcing it would expand to include mainstream services between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

But Stewart said the future of the industry remained up in the air.

“I know it will be a while before operations completely return,” he said.

“And sadly there will be a lot of fear and uncertainty for those in the industry until then.”

It's a crisis Stewart never imagined when his dream of becoming a pilot first took off.

Stewart Greig flies for Regional Express Airlines.

Born and raised in Shepparton, Stewart attended Bourchier St Primary School before heading to Wanganui Park Secondary College.

But for him, the most important classroom was the Shepparton Airport tarmac.

A love of flying was in Stewart's blood from the beginning — his dad Simon and mum Elizabeth both had private pilot licences and were keen members of the local aero club.

Flying with his parents from the age of 12, his beloved hobby became something more when he started taking lessons at 15.

“I realised this was definitely something I wanted to do as a career,” he said.

Training with Gawne Aviation and Air Shepparton, Stewart had to wait until his 16th birthday to fly solo.

“I can still remember that flight,” he said.

“I was doing my final checks before taking off and looked over to see whether my instructor had their seatbelt on.

“But there was no-one there. I didn't have an instructor anymore. That's when I realised, ‘Gee, I'm the one responsible for this plane now'.”

The view from the cockpit.

Two-hundred hours of flying later Stewart, aged 18, reached his ultimate goal — securing his commercial licence.

He soon after gained his instructor rating, meaning he could teach people to fly.

“At the time, I thought that was the end goal,” Stewart reflected.

“I wanted to help other people achieve what I had achieved.”

After teaching in Shepparton and Mangalore, Stewart moved to Wagga Wagga where he taught at the Rex pilot cadet program.

It was there he was offered a position with the airline.

“For me, it was something I hadn't thought of. But I decided I'd give it a go.”

In February 2011, Stewart piloted his inaugural airline flight as a first officer.

A flight he will never forget.

“There were three pilots, a flight attendant and a nearly full aircraft of 32 passengers,” he said.

“Before then, the largest number of passengers I'd flown was six. Suddenly I had all these lives in my hands.

“It was overwhelming at the start, but now it's my every day.”

Stewart flew as a co-pilot for four years before moving into the left-hand seat, becoming a captain.

Living in Melbourne at the time, he was moved to Adelaide and Perth for brief stints before returning to Melbourne, where he has been based for the past four years.

All up, he has flown 6000 hours for the airline, with an additional 2500 under his belt from his time as an instructor.

But in March, COVID-19 brought his career to a screeching halt.

“When restrictions started hitting Australia, I knew it was inevitable our industry would be impacted,” he said.

“But I didn't fathom just how large that impact would be.

“There's a huge flow-on effect where ground staff, check-in, flight attendants, baggage, engineers and more are affected.

“One plane on the ground can mean 10 to 15 people are out of a job.”

Shepparton's Stewart Greig has flown passengers to regional centres across the country.

Stewart was issued a stand-down notice for almost six weeks, before he was gradually rostered on a couple shifts each fortnight.

It's a blessing which has allowed him to "maintain his currency", meaning he won't have to undergo training (like many other pilots) after pandemic restrictions lift.

“It's also stopped me from going stir-crazy,” Stewart said.

“JobKeeper has also been a lifesaver.”

Many pilots, stood down without pay, have resorted to Uber driving or packing shelves at supermarkets to get by.

But Stewart said there was a light at the end of the tunnel for the industry — and particularly for regional airline pilots.

“Once the restrictions ease, we should be able to return to normality before mainstream domestic flights,” he said.

“While it's looking like Victoria may take a little longer, operations should start to increase throughout the other states, which will be amazing to see.”

Shepparton's Stewart Greig in the captain's seat of a Regional Express Airlines Saab 340.

However, he warned the shockwaves from the pandemic would be significant.

“Unfortunately it could be very difficult for junior pilots to progress in the aftermath, as there will be lots of experienced pilots vying for a limited pool of jobs,” he said.

“I can see this affecting the airline industry for at least several years, if not more.”

But COVID-19 won't keep Stewart from the cockpit.

“It started as a hobby but has become a passion.

“There is nothing I'd rather be doing.”